Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Challah Bread

Urged by the frequent audible daydreams by the hubby about making challah bread french toast, I decided to look some recipes up online. I haven't made bread since I was a kid, but I hoped that some of those recessed memories would come back and aid me in my baking exploit. I've talked before about how my mom went through quite a bread-making phase, which lasted a wonderful few years. There's just nothing like walking into a house filled with the aroma of fresh-baked bread.

I remember helping her a few times with the loaves of white, egg, and wheat bread. And one Christmas we went crazy, making loaves of egg bread shaped like round teddy bears for all my teachers. We paired that with our homemade strawberry jam from our summer adventure of picking our own strawberries at a farm in Watsonville. Let me tell you, with a family of 6, we came home with quite the haul - 52 pounds of strawberries! And that doesn't include the raspberries and olallieberries we picked that same day. Good thing we had an extra deep freeze to hold it all.

I decided that the teddy bear loaves were probably pretty similar to challah (also seen as hallah), so if I could do it as a kid, I should be able to do it now by myself. So I found a recipe that looked good, stocked the pantry cabinets (oh, to have a real pantry!), and hoped some baking muscle memory would emerge as I went through the recipe. After a second trip to the grocery store to purchase the yeast I had forgotten the first time, I was ready to go.

I used the recipe from Deb at SmittenKitchen. I would definitely use it again, as the instructions were very clear and easy to follow. Also, she has a great post about tips to make bread-making easier and more consistently successful. Let me warn you, though, after making such a successful and relatively easy loaf of bread, you may become hooked and want to try all sorts of different recipes. I've decided to finally follow-through on my dream of making my own sourdough bread. But that's for another time.

So let's get into it. First, realize that this is going to require some time. You need to have an hour and a half just for rising time, and another 30-40 mins for baking. It takes a little time to cut the dough and braid it, but it's pretty quick to make the initial dough. Do make note that you can put the dough in the fridge to rise more slowly (over a couple of hours), which Deb says will make the dough more flavorful. But you will need to bring the dough back up to room temp afterwards (at least another half hour). You can also add another rising cycle if you like.

Also note that this recipe is for two loaves, but you can easily divide this in half to just make one. The extra egg is just for the egg wash.

Here's the recipe (see SmittenKitchen for the full post):

Best Challah (Egg Bread)
Adapted from Joan Nathan
The secrets to good challah are simple: Use two coats of egg wash to get that laquer-like crust and don’t overbake it. Joan Nathan, who this recipe is adapted from, adds that three risings always makes for the tastiest loaves, even better if one of them is slowed down in the fridge.

Time: about 1 hour, plus 2 1/2 hours’ rising
Yield: 2 loaves

1 1/2 packages active dry yeast (1 1/2 tablespoons)
1 tablespoon plus 1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup olive or vegetable oil, plus more for greasing the bowl
5 large eggs
1 tablespoon salt
8 to 8 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup raisins per challah, if using, plumped in hot water and drained
Poppy or sesame seeds for sprinkling.

1. In a large bowl, dissolve yeast and 1 tablespoon sugar in 1 3/4 cups lukewarm water.
2. Whisk oil into yeast, then beat in 4 eggs, one at a time, with remaining sugar and salt. Gradually add flour. When dough holds together, it is ready for kneading. (You can also use a mixer with a dough hook for both mixing and kneading, but be careful if using a standard size KitchenAid–it’s a bit much for it, though it can be done.)
3. Turn dough onto a floured surface and knead until smooth. Clean out bowl and grease it, then return dough to bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place for 1 hour, until almost doubled in size. Dough may also rise in an oven that has been warmed to 150 degrees then turned off. Punch down dough, cover and let rise again in a warm place for another half-hour.
4. At this point, you can knead the raisins into the challah, if you’re using them, before forming the loaves. To make a 6-braid challah, either straight or circular, take half the dough and form it into 6 balls. With your hands, roll each ball into a strand about 12 inches long and 1 1/2 inches wide. Place the 6 in a row, parallel to one another. Pinch the tops of the strands together. Move the outside right strand over 2 strands. Then take the second strand from the left and move it to the far right. Take the outside left strand and move it over 2. Move second strand from the right over to the far left. Start over with the outside right strand. Continue this until all strands are braided. For a straight loaf, tuck ends underneath. For a circular loaf, twist into a circle, pinching ends together. Make a second loaf the same way. Place braided loaves on a greased cookie sheet with at least 2 inches in between.
5. Beat remaining egg and brush it on loaves. Either freeze breads or let rise another hour.
6. If baking immediately, preheat oven to 375 degrees and brush loaves again. Sprinkle bread with seeds, if using. If freezing, remove from freezer 5 hours before baking.
7. Bake in middle of oven for 30 to 40 minutes, or until golden. (If you have an instant read thermometer, you can take it out when it hits an internal temperature of 190 degrees.) Cool loaves on a rack.

Note: Any of the three risings can be done in the fridge for a few hours, for more deeply-developed flavor. When you’re ready to work with it again, bring it back to room temperature before moving onto the next step.

She also talks about adding raisins - I prefer the challah without them, and the hubby didn't want any topping either, but I do like it with either poppy seeds or sesame seeds.

The prep is pretty straightforward. I don't have a stand mixer, so I was a little nervous about mixing by hand, but it wasn't bad at all. Once the dough starts forming a ball, pull it out of the bowl and start kneading. You can incorporate whatever little bits are left in the bowl.

Also, I didn't end up using the whole 8 cups of flour. I added the flour gradually, making sure that it kept getting incorporated, but after 7 1/2 cups, I didn't feel the dough could take anymore without being too dry. My bread came out great. I read in a later recipe that you could add a little water to compensate, so maybe next time I'll do that and add the whole 8 cups. The humidity in the air can effect your dough, too, so realize that it may be a little different each time you make it. I'm not an expert breadmaker, but in general I say to follow your instincts. Use your best judgment about how much flour to add.

Ready to rise
Kneading came back to me as something that I started doing without remembering that I even knew how to do it. So I guess there is something to that muscle memory business, after all. If you need pointers, Deb's page of tips has a good explanation. What made me feel better was that she said you're not in any danger of over-kneading if you're doing it by hand. Just keep folding the dough over and pushing it out with the palms of your hands until it's well-incorporated. (And I apologize, but I have no pictures of the kneading, as my hands were covered with dough, and it didn't seem the best idea to get that all over my camera.)

After the second rise
Make sure you have a large enough bowl or container for the dough to rise in. It will double (at least) in size. The recipe says to cover with plastic wrap, which I did, although I remember as a kid we would use a damp tea towel. Investigation on the internet returned varied results with both ways, depending on the type of bread and the environmental indicators. Rising in an oven that's been brought to 150 degrees and then turned off is also common - many people do not use a cover in this instance, and may instead use a pan with water underneath to keep it moist. I had generic plastic wrap which usually drives me crazy because it doesn't cling to anything, but in this case it was great because you don't want to encumber the dough from rising (which you can see mine rose past the top of the bowl).

The recipe doesn't say anything about air bubbles, but I try to get rid of as many of them as I can when I'm punching down the dough, and while I was prepping it for braiding. I didn't want random holes in my bread.

To separate out the 6 strands of dough to braid, I used something similar to a pastry cutter. I had a large-sized pizza wheel as a backup option. It is definitely useful to have someone read you the directions for braiding as you do it. I did the first loaf, and after reading the directions to me, the hubby decided he wanted to braid the second loaf while I read to him.

Egg wash before proofing
The pictures here are of my braided loaf (we froze the hubby's for later consumption). You can tell that I started the braid out too loose, and tightened up later. After baking, I don't mind the wide part of the loaf, but it is something to take note of. I was trying to keep the strands straight across in a line, but really they should be more vertical (on top of each other) for a taller loaf. Pretty braiding comes with practice, just like with your hair! But it tastes great either way.

After that, it's really pretty easy. Just one more rise/proof, and into the oven! I didn't have a baking stone, so I took Deb's suggestion of putting the loaf on the back of a baking sheet. She suggested putting a piece of parchment paper between the pan and the loaf, but I used a SilPat. I was a little afraid that with the SilPat the bottom wouldn't brown very well (I've had that problem with some of our cookies), but it did great, and both the bottom and top were very nicely browned a crisp, with a slightly dense, moist center. That could be in part due to the gas oven, but definitely do both egg washes on the top, as the first wash soaks in during the final rise.

And what about that french toast, you ask? Well, we're saving it for the weekend. Challah bread french toast is better if the bread's a little stale, as it holds up to the liquid soak better. It's going to be a challenge to let the rest of the loaf sit for another 3 days, though! The end result should be worth the willpower, though. I'll let you know how it turns out!

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